LONDON – Riyad Mahrez fired Manchester City back to the top of the Premier League as the champions won 1-0 in their pitch battle with Tottenham on Monday.
Playing on the scarred Wembley turf just 24 hours after it was damaged by an NFL fixture, City’s peerless quality and a predatory finish from Mahrez helped them ignore the pitch problems.
It was an emotional moment for former Leicester star Mahrez just 48 hours after the death of Foxes owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha in a helicopter crash outside the club’s King Power Stadium on Saturday.
A sixth win from their last seven league games lifted Pep Guardiola’s unbeaten side back above Liverpool on goal difference.
Guardiola hailed City’s Champions League win over Shakhtar Donetsk last week as the finest display of his reign in Manchester.
This was a far more prosaic performance, but it must have been just as encouraging for Guardiola, given the way City subdued a Tottenham side who had lost only two of their previous 21 league games at Wembley.
City were rock-solid at the back as they equalled the club record of six consecutive league clean-sheets.
It was a dispiriting evening for fifth-placed Tottenham, who now trail City by five points after their first league defeat in five games.
Mauricio Pochettino this week admitted he is enduring his “worst feeling” as Tottenham boss this season, despite guiding them to their best Premier League start, and this sloppy display will have done nothing to improve his mood.
His cause wasn’t helped by the presence of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Philadelphia Eagles at Tottenham’s temporary home a day earlier.
There were large areas of worn brown turf down the middle and both flanks, while the NFL logo in the centre circle and yard-line markers the length of the pitch were all still visible.
But City were unfazed as they raced into the lead after just six minutes.
Tottenham defender Kieran Trippier misjudged a long kick from City goalkeeper Ederson, his errant header allowing Raheem Sterling to steal possession and cut past him into the penalty area.
Sterling showed tremendous composure as he picked out Mahrez’s run, and the Algerian finished the raid with a clinical close-range finish.
Mahrez pointed his fingers to the sky in what appeared to be a tribute to Vichai.
Following the tragic accident, Mahrez had posted two images of himself with Vichai on Instagram, with the caption: “One of the best person I’ve ever met. I will never forget you. Rest In Peace Vichai.”
"The boss (Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha) was very special to me. I spent four and a half years there.— Manchester City (@ManCity) October 29, 2018
"I have many memories of him. He was such a good person; a good human.
"When I scored, I put my hands up to the sky for him. He did a lot for me and for Leicester."@Mahrez22 pic.twitter.com/PgQaHa4pw8
There were plenty of anguished glances at the pitch from both teams when passes went astray, but the surface couldn’t be blamed for some of the miscues.
City seemed less troubled by the surface, and they scythed through the Tottenham defence with a flowing move that ended with Hugo Lloris pushing Mahrez’s drive on to a post.
Sent clean through on goal by Erik Lamela’s pass, Harry Kane had a golden chance to equalise, but his poor first touch, which couldn’t be blamed on the turf, allowed Ederson to block with his legs.
City had lost just two of their last 101 Premier League games in which they led at halftime, and Sterling should have doubled their lead soon after the restart.
Bernardo Silva’s pass gave David Silva a clear sight of goal, but he couldn’t get a shot away and instead found Sterling, whose close-range effort was blocked on the line.
Sergio Aguero fared no better, the City forward shot tamely at Lloris from just 10 yards out, and then saw a more potent long-range strike repelled by the Tottenham keeper.
Dele Alli, back after a four-match absence with a hamstring injury, came on for the last 15 minutes, and the Tottenham midfielder almost set up an immediate equaliser.
Alli’s run and pass picked out Lamela, but the Argentine somehow blazed over with only Ederson to beat.
In a fractious finale, Lamela and City’s Benjamin Mendy escaped punishment despite coming to blows.